Go Outside and Play!

Guest Blogger, Amy Magrinat

The Lupine School at 1870 Farm

An almost universal truth is that young beings love to play; this includes humans as well as other animals! In fact, play is a crucial part of appropriate development in children. The natural world offers abundant opportunities for play. Why is outdoor play important, and how can we, as educators and parents, give children ample and appropriate opportunities to play outside?

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “Play appears to support the abilities that underlie (academic) learning and thus promote school success” (2009). Play is a way of learning to understand place in the world; it’s a world where children do not have to rely on adults for meaning. Research strongly supports the claim that child-directed outdoor play in natural environments plays a crucial role in appropriate socio-emotional, cognitive, and physical development (Cooper, 2015;  Peterson, 2013, Yildirim & Ozyilmaz Akamca, 2017). Not only are young children who play outside able to enjoy increased physical fitness, but they are offered opportunities to increase their creativity, problem solving skills, and resilience.

In one experiment conducted in three nature-based preschools, researchers found many opportunities for cognitive play when observing outdoor environments. The highest opportunities were found in natural elements (snow, dirt, ice, etc.) and loose parts (Rout & Galpern, 2017). Outdoor play allows children to develop appropriate stress-coping skills, and increases self-regulation, creativity, and attention. This is especially true for children who play on “green” playgrounds, and these effects are still seen years later.  Developmentally appropriate “risky” play is even believed to allow children to “address developmental phobias” and reduce their inhibitions by offering repetitive and “increasingly challenging” experiences (Harper, 2017, p.5). For example, children learn to walk and run by tripping, falling, and failing, which constitutes the beginning of risky play. In natural outdoor environments, children are able to test their abilities on a wide range of surfaces and textures (dirt, sand, mulch, grass, uneven terrain, etc.).  

Play in the outdoors can be simple!  A bucket of water on a warm day along with some pinecones, sweet gum balls, rocks, and leaves have kept my preschool students engaged for long periods of time. I am continually surprised by the creativity (and scientific inquiry!) shown in my students’ appreciation of these loose parts when playing outside.  Children create elaborate games and scenarios that allow appropriate opportunities for cognitive and physical development. These open-ended materials can be used in a myriad of ways. Richard Louv, a noted psychologist who focuses on children and nature, suggests that the more things that children can manipulate, see, touch, and feel, the more creative they become (Louv, 2005). Check out the resources below for great ideas to get young children outside and playing, both in school and at home!

Guest Blogger, Amy Magrinat

Join TECE and Amy Magrinat at Transforming The Image of the Child Inaugural Conference on October 5th, 2019!


Outdoor loose parts/open-ended materials:



Getting Kids Outside:



Resources for Learning More!




Cooper, A. (2015). Nature and the outdoor learning environment: The forgotten resource in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education. 3 (1).    85-87.

 Harper, N. (2017): Outdoor risky play and healthy child development in the shadow of the “risk society”: A forest and nature school perspective. Child & Youth Services.  38(1). 1-11.

Kemple, K. M., Oh, J., Kenney, E., & Smith-Bonahue, T. (2016). The power of outdoor play and play in natural environments. Childhood Education, 92:6, 446-454

Louv, Richard. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

NAEYC (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8.  Retrieved from: https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSDAP.pdf

National Wildlife Federation (n.d.) Whole child: Developing mind, body, and spirit through outdoor play.  Retrieved from: https://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Be%20Out%20There/BeOutThere_WholeChild_V2.ashx

Peterson, A. (2013). A Forest Preschool for the Bay Area: A Pilot Study for a New Nature-Based Curriculum. Online Submission.

Rout, A & Galpern, P. (2017). Evidence-based design of outdoor learning spaces in winter: Behavioral mapping in a ‘forest school’, presented at The 10th EAAE/ARCC International Conference, 567-574.

Yildirim, G. & Ozyilmaz,Akamca, G. (2017). The effect of outdoor learning activities on the development of preschool children. South African Journal of Education, 37 (2) 1-10.